Egress by Nauman Khalid
Urfi, I never came to stay. It’s just that it’s no longer as simple as it was. Then, the plan was straightforward: I was a visitor, just passing through, embracing this land of dreams for a year. So much has happened and, time, a slippery eel to the last, makes my first day here, a quarter century ago, feel like yesterday. I am no longer the innocent, clear-eyed youth I was on arrival.
In those giddy days – in this sceptered isle – I thought I would love life: the England of Wodehouse; Brideshead Revisited; The Good Life; Top of the Pops; Sapphire and Steel; BBC English; verdant green and endless romantic promise. What I found after three exciting, wonder-filled months was a perpetually grey, drizzly city – it’s throwing it down; it’s bouncing off the floor; it’s pissing down with rain – in which most people spoke in a lazy, adenoidal drawl which was often incomprehensible but could be sexy on men. That ta and cheers meant thank you was a revelation; that git, twat, toss-pot, knob–head, wuss, wanker and wazza were terms of abuse was news to me; that complimenting a lady passing by you, on her handbag, was seen as weird, and to offer help with her luggage even more, hadn’t dawned on me then.
The city which I had chosen with little prior knowledge was a metropolis which had long lost its glory, where sooty, decrepit warehouses were being converted into loft apartments for the upwardly mobile; a city where people got excited – got their knickers in a twist – about footballers, their wives and actors from soaps I had never seen or heard of; and there was a palpable sense of hostility towards a foreigner who had a colonial accent and looked suspiciously interested and friendly.
The months leading up to my first winter were a breeze: ‘From pleasurable delight to carnival elation’, a phrase I remember from a book I read many moons ago sums it up beautifully. Independent life in student digs; approachable, encouraging professors imparting knowledge through lectures, tutorials and cleverly orchestrated workshops; co-students from many different parts of the world; membership of a plethora of student societies; a part-time job stacking shelves at Habitat and fifty percent off everything on top; trips to Llandudno, Bath, Edinburgh, Oxford, and Cambridge with the International Society and ’Flesh’ at the Hacienda – life seemed a series of delights.
In winter – the whitest I can remember in my half–a–life here – in untold despair, I stood precariously perched on my thirteenth-floor room’s window ledge. Flailing, flailing in the piercing wind Urfi, meri jaan. That I stayed on to write these words seems nothing short of a miracle.
I know you think I am a turncoat, that I left you for greener pastures, but all is not as it appears. I had to leave the past behind. You, jani, are the only one privy to it. After all, he was only a child, just twelve when we met with his entire life ahead of him. Admittedly, I had the rest of mine too but I wanted the freedom to be without constraints; I didn’t want to lead a solitary existence and I thought I could find love in the West and lead a happier life.
You remember you’d say, ‘some relationships are such that they are not accountable to meetings and reminders’ which sounded more beautiful in your Urdu. So true, so true sweetheart but even so, even so, memory and distance are formidable allies to contend with. Where will I find another like you jan–e–jaan? The colour, the intemperance, the foibles, the whimsy, the ada.
The shenanigans we’d get up to – I could list them forever. The time when you wore makeup, fish-net stockings, and fuschia stilettos to Jinnah Market, made heads turn and elicited wolf whistles from boys half your age; and the time when we almost got arrested on the charge of spreading indecency on Murree’s main thoroughfare because of the length of my shorts; the times when you’d play Madam Noor Jehan full blast on the much–put-upon sound system of your battered old Suzuki FX and screech in front of Parliament House without warning, dart out, sprawl yourself on the bonnet, mime the louche lyrics and start writhing to Madam’s blaring concupiscence. Our reckless abandon made us oblivious to the security guards on duty who, alerted, would gather in pairs and small groups to witness the spectacle, intrigued and bemused in equal measure but secure in the knowledge that we posed no danger to national security.
I miss the first flush of spring: the abundant, lurid bougainvillea on boundary walls and facades; the marigold on encroachments; the bottle brush on Hill Road; the dropping in on friends without prior notice; the long desultory walks to Rana Market to buy samosas and jalebis talking of ambitions and loves manqué en route and the smell of damp earth after a heavy monsoon downpour – so passionate, so hearty, so unlike the slow spitting here – always redolent either of a nameless yearning or of imminent heart-break.
Remember the times on Trail 3: the limp-haired Pathan whose white, furry legs I lost my heart to. How we drew him into conversation with our wiles, thought we’d befriended him and followed him to his accommodation in Frontier House only to be treated to the choicest galis for stalking him. We sought attention and excitement and courted scandal even if our flirtation with the subversive never got so intense as to get us into serious trouble. We had decided that we were libertines, free of the shackles of conformity. We thought we embodied the spirit of the times in which Sartre and de Beauvoir propounded their ideas, ‘Man is condemned to be free’ our insouciant mantra. We were in thrall to the West.
We’d always try to be in on the latest. I’d apprise you of whatever I read in English and you’d lap it up like a devoted acolyte. You’d ask me for the correct pronunciation of words – ‘Urfi enunciate, Urfi the schwa sound – it’s everywhere in the English language. You need to shorten your words, shorter, more jaunty and crisp; and articles, Urfi, articles! Whatever happens to the articles in your sentences?’ For greater cachet, you would deliberately throw in the few fashionable English phrases you picked up from our exchanges into your Urdu short stories. I took up French at the Alliançe and, with bold disregard for what people would’ve said, you started training for bharatanatyam. Because you felt you were a woman trapped in a man’s body. You met Ayesha and Shahzia in dance class who worked for NGOs, smoked, drove SUVs and spouted all that was up-to-the-minute in the West. I told you about structuralism but you came back with post-structuralism and post-modernism after a few dance sessions with them and informed me, with nose up in the air, that existentialism was dead – démodé, a thing of the past. How we thought our youth, our enthusiasms and passions were forever, that we’d never falter in our ambitions, that our major conquests lay well ahead of us! Life in those halcyon days was a litany of the attainable, of the possible.
‘I suppose it’s not going to make much of a difference to Radio Pakistan or the PTV newsroom; there are plenty waiting to take my place and the school, they’ll be glad to see the back of me after the fatwa for teaching with a cup of tea in the classroom, slapbang, in the middle of Ramzan. Well, they can kiss my sweet arse goodbye. Good riddance for all concerned! I’ve sent off my personal statements to USC, UCLA and NYU. I know it’ll be cut-throat. Aijaz Gul says USC is the best for film-making and it also gives you the chance to be in the middle of all the action: LA, Hollywood.’
‘And where is he today, sweetie? What has he accomplished in this wonderful country of ours despite being from a family of film moguls? Do you think he makes a living out of that wretched film column he writes for “The Muslim”? It’s all family money. Gone are the days when our industry made decent films. Where are the handful of great directors: the Riaz Shahids, the Hasan Tariqs or even the Pervez Maliks and Nazrul Islams? The output has shrunk to a trickle. You want to do First World stuff here? In this country, you’ll fritter away your learning and your parents’ hard-earned money. Where’s the infrastructure, where’s the audience? I think you should listen to uncle and aunty, it’s a great expense and a long time away and, while we’re at it, what’s going to happen to this new dalliance or should I say, love of yours, Ahmed Zaman? How will you survive without him?’
‘I know it’s going to be difficult but my mind’s made up. I can’t stay Urfi, I can only really lead a full life in the West and I feel guilty about the money but I’ll try and manage on my own as soon as I can. And I tell you, one day – and mark my words – I’m going to work with him. Yup, Aamir Khan’s going to come knocking on my door; wanting to work in my magnum opus.’
‘Dream on tart! And make sure you take plenty of lithium with you. God almighty, the maladies the rich conjure up! BAD: Bipolar Affective Disorder; OCD: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; heaven knows what next, SSAD? Same-Sex Affective Disorder? If you ask me you need two tight slaps to set your mind straight. I’m telling you now girl, I don’t want to see your English-spouting arse till you’ve got that damn film degree of yours and become the next Satyajit Ray. By the way, my Canadian citizenship application has also gone through. I suppose we’ll be meeting in the gay villages of Toronto, New York or LA. then?
‘May your mouth be filled with ghee and sugar’, I’d respond invoking a popular Urdu saying employed when someone echoes one’s ardent wish. ‘I certainly hope so jani, what absolute fun it’ll be!’
‘Yes, un-cut fun, your favourite!’ and you’d lick your upper lip lasciviously and sashay up in front of me on the rocky ascent, your neon-blue tights outlining your considerable backside in the twilight.
‘I’m going to America not Europe, harridan!’
To think how easily we could’ve passed each other by that fateful day in eighty eight when you and I were in London, the city that was such a source of fascination for us. I rushing out of Leicester Square tube station so that I could make it on time for Monday night at The Hippodrome and you hurtling down its entrails to catch the next train to your destination. We exchanged the most fleeting of glances but one that lingered long after we left and returned to Islamabad. Your light eyes – sometimes blue, sometimes green and perhaps even grey – were as remarkable back then as they are now but I wasn’t aware then of how your eyebrows could arch and conspire with your iridescent irises in such delicious variations of expression.
Sometimes, the sodium-lit, orange-brick monotony of this place gets to me. I see here the impersonality and callousness that individualism can breed. Everything and everybody becomes yesterday’s news at the pace at which things move. My anonymity begins to haunt me. Is it just that ‘unlearning privilege’ is a hard thing to do? The city centre perhaps is where I feel less lonely, surrounded by people who aren’t as amenable as the people back home but are a living presence nonetheless. At least, I am surrounded by human noise in cafes. It’s better than the vortex of silence I feel myself being sucked into when I’m all by myself. But often, traversing this small radius cluttered with banks, chain coffee–shops and more and more buskers asking for change at traffic signals and in front of cashpoints, a desolation begins to sweep over me; a dread of the homogeneity I am surrounded by. And I feel I’ll forever be trapped here like I was in the dream I had when I was about to depart; where I arrived in a strange, dark almost gothic town in England and lost my bearings and had no way of getting back. The dimly lit, dystopian landscape of the dream strangely resembles parts of the city I live in now. Was it a premonition, that dream? Is it the hand of fate that led me here? Did I trade my soul with the devil?
Yes Urfi, I read deeply, with relish and much easier and wider access in the library here which is said to be one of the powerhouses of British education. Yes, the books gave me pause and made me more erudite. I even got to see, hear and, on occasion, meet the novelists and theorists we had read and only heard of; yes, I can claim to have seen with my eyes and heard with my ears the triumvirate who make the ‘holy trinity’ of postcolonialism, the latest ‘ism’. I found physical gratification fleetingly in the dens of iniquity we glorified and craved after and thought were the acme of sexual freedom. And, I even found love – reliable, stable, comfortable and now habitual – but was it all worth it is a question I am much given to contemplating, now that there is a smattering of white on my chin and chest and stray hairs have started appearing on the outer edges of my ears.
Daily, I walk a familiar, linear path from the apartment building we live in, now dwarfed by the glass-and-steel towers that have sprung up around it over a few years. Mid-way to the city centre, I stop, sit on a bench, read, look at the world go by. After twenty–five years here – half my life – I remain an observer from another land.
Nauman Khalid has worked as a lawyer, secondary school and EFL teacher, broadcaster, journalist and university lecturer. He has recently turned his hand to filmmaking with his debut short, ‘One-way Glass’, which is currently on its festival run. He also works as a freelance writer and divides his time between London and Manchester.